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Friday, December 16, 2016

Too Hot to Handle: I Thought It My Way

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

Tom: Let me set this up for you, IC.

Dr. Jordan Peterson, the University of Toronto professor whose struggle against political correctness we discussed at length here a few weeks ago, gives an extensive interview with two writers for the Winter 2016 edition of C2C Journal about the assault on free speech in Canada.

So one of his interviewers asks him about what it was about his refusal to buckle to the forces of “social justice” at U of T that has set off such a firestorm and his answer is that “There was something I said I wouldn’t do. That took the general and made it specific.”

The Specific Logos

But it gets better. Peterson goes on:
“In Christianity, there’s the idea of the general Christ, that’s the ‘Word’ that God used to speak chaos into order. Then there’s the specific Christ, a carpenter in the Middle East 2,000 years ago. So there’s this weird notion in Christianity between this general principle, which is the logos roughly speaking; the logos is the thing that mediates between order and chaos and is a very abstract principle; and the specific human being who had a specific identity tied to a specific time and place, making the archetypal individual, and that makes an unbelievably compelling story. The archetypal is too abstract. It’s like saying ‘the good guys won’ — there’s no story there. I think that what I did was make the general concrete and specific, and drew a line.”
That has got to be the coolest digression I’ve ever seen in an interview. I don’t know how those guys kept up with him.

Maps of Meaning

Immanuel Can: Dr. Peterson, according to his autobio, attended conservative Protestant services with his mother when he was a child. His father was agnostic, he says. But “Christian morality permeated our household, conditioning our expectations and interpersonal responses, in the most intimate of manners” (Maps of Meaning, xi). He writes that as a young man he rejected the faith because he didn’t believe in miracles such as the virgin birth. For a time, he became “mildly socialist” and was a great fan of Orwell, but soon abandoned politics for psychology — prompted especially by his realization of his own human “capacity for evil”, as he puts it, particularly in association with beliefs. That’s where he’s made his career … studying unwarranted beliefs, propaganda, ideology, mythology and so on.

He’s essentially agnostic himself, so far as I can tell, but very interested in religion. His major influences seem to have been Jung and Freud, and his analysis of beliefs certainly shows strong influences from the former. He’s big on the idea of archetypes. But how his Christian upbringing might feed into all this is the most interesting bit.

Battling the PC Left

Tom: Yes, let’s start with that. Peterson is actually number three now on my list of men brought up in Christian households who have not embraced the faith of their parents, and yet are among the biggest names today in taking a stand against Leftist fascism and political correctness. All three have shown notable courage in the face of major personal attacks from the media, and in Peterson’s case, from students and administration at work.

The other two are Mike Cernovich, an internet self-help guru and citizen journalist who trolled the Left brilliantly during Trump’s election and led several news cycles by turning up evidence of Progressive malfeasance the media was determined to ignore; and Stefan Molyneux, a YouTube philosopher and interviewer with millions of daily followers, who is leading the Right intellectually.

All three would tell you that Western civilization would not exist and cannot continue in the absence of a genuinely Christian influence, and are prepared to take whatever lumps the Left dishes out to defend whatever is left of it — which in my opinion is not a great deal.

Just Plain Good

IC: Here’s my explanation of that: exposure to Jesus Christ is just plain good for human beings. A person who has some knowledge of him — any knowledge of him, even just knowledge about him — will be better for it, every time. If you’ve been raised in earshot of his word, you are likely to be all the wiser for that. And these men clearly have some sense of truth, reasonableness and justice, even if they aren’t (yet) Christians.

Tom: I think that’s very true. The coming millennial reign of Christ will be good for the entire world, not just for Jews. The nations who humble themselves before the rightful Ruler of this world when he is finally reinstalled and enjoy the immense benefits his leadership provides will be far better off for it in this life than those who foolishly resist him — and that’s entirely apart from the issue of salvation.

But how much happier those of us who know him personally.

The General and Specific Christ

Let me ask you what you think of Peterson’s “general” and “specific” Christ idea. I understand what he’s saying about archetypes and myths being “too abstract”. It’s something we were always told in writing class: that a specific statement resonates with readers far better than some vague generality.

IC: I suppose that’s true. People do like specifics. And there are many situations in which the specifics matter more than any “mythic resonance” that one draws out of them … or rather, any meaning they might have is actually dependent on the thing having actually happened.

Imagine Moses telling the people of Israel, “Well, God isn’t actually going to part the Red Sea, but try to think of yourselves as delivered anyway.” Or think of what Paul says about the resurrection: “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins.” There would simply be no mythic value or archetypal resonance of those if they were not real events.

Tom: Absolutely, and the incarnation had to be a real event too. A word from God — even a Word that was God — that dwelt only in eternity could never fully resonate with mankind. God knew that and accounted for it. So in assuming flesh and becoming a man, the Lord Jesus made the general specific. He made what was formerly only archetypal now individual, or if you prefer, he made the myth concrete:
“That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life — the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us …”
John is saying much the same in different words: “That which was from the beginning … was made manifest to us”.

Peterson may not quite get that. He may only be talking about two different levels of myth or archetype: general and specific. But there’s a reality behind what he’s saying than he may not have fully grasped.

The Biggest Truth in the Universe

IC: Yes, I agree. What struck you about that?

Tom: Well, he’s got the biggest truth in the universe in his hands — that the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us. That’s one of the single most powerful sentences ever constructed. Really understand it, and you’re golden for eternity. But what it becomes to the purely intellectual mind is trivial by comparison: for Peterson, it’s just a convenient way of illustrating to a reporter how one little U of T professor was able to become a flashpoint and a rallying cry in the battle against political correctness. (Unless it’s just his way of sneaking a potent spiritual truth into an interview; I don’t want to assume anything about his motives.)

But on the evidence, it seems to me you’ve got a very smart guy managing to miss his own point, which is the same problem I’ve previously encountered with Molyneux and Cernovich — though Peterson’s in a different intellectual league. They get the logic of Christianity. They get why it works. They want it around. They’re even willing to fight for some principle or principles distantly derived from it. They just can’t bring themselves to personally submit to the Christ of Christianity.

Camel, Meet Needle

IC: Yes, that’s well put. The Lord said it was easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom. I sometimes wonder if the same isn’t true of intellectuals. It’s not that they’re too smart; it’s that they’re too proud, too fiercely devoted to the Sinatra-esque “I thought it my way”. So they see the wisdom of Christianity, but it’s Someone Else’s idea: and they don’t want to bow to that. They’d rather borrow some aspects of it, but drop the necessity of confessing Christ.

Tom: Oh dear. You might have nailed that. I never thought about it that way. Put another way, “Unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

IC: Yes, quite. But if I’m an academic, a book author, a university professor, a blogger with a substantial intellectual following, or something like that, my whole stock-in-trade is the credibility of my personal intelligence. I spend my whole life proving to everybody I’m as smart as I think I am, and that you should think so too: but now you want me to submit that to God? How can I, without losing both my confidence in my control of information and my credibility with those who listen to me?

Tom: So what you’re saying is something like “Whoever would save his intellectual credibility will lose it, but whoever loses it for my sake will find it.”

IC: Yes. Or to put it another way, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”

Intellectual Self-Sufficiency

I’m not trying to be judgmental about those men. I understand the temptation, and have seen it very, very often. It’s widespread among those who make their living from their brains, and happens very naturally. These men are not especially wicked or obdurate: they just have a particular temptation that most of us do not. That is, intellectual self-sufficiency.

Tom: Here’s the thing: I find Cernovich, Molyneux and especially Jordan Peterson delightful in the way they tell the truth about this world, albeit mixed in with their own spin. They all have acuity and fluidity of expression that I will never have. I’m impressed, and perhaps slightly jealous.

But God is not. He doesn’t care:
“Let no one deceive himself. If anyone among you thinks that he is wise in this age, let him become a fool that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is folly with God. For it is written, ‘He catches the wise in their craftiness,’ and again, ‘The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise, that they are futile.’ ”
I’m excited to see these children of Christian parents clashing with the Powers That Be. This is a good time to disagree with the conventional wisdom and the people who are pushing it. But it only matters if you are doing it for the sake of Truth, capital ‘T’, not because you’re a pedant, a pawn, a rebel, a principled professor, a self-promoter or even an altruist.

“I thought it my way” will not cut it at the Great White Throne.

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